Rooney Mara shines opposite Casey Affleck in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, writer/director David Lowery’s eloquent, poetic story of love, motherhood and searching for peace while faced with an unrelenting past. Although set in 1970s Texas Hill country, the film feels timeless as it draws on the mythology of westerns to explore the dueling notion of romance and responsibility that is central to the tale. In a riveting performance, Mara allows her character to disappear into the texture of the film without making it feel too modern. Opening in theaters on August 16th, the movie also stars Ben Foster and Keith Carradine.
At a recent roundtable interview, Mara talked about what drew her to the script and the characters and made it appealing to work with Lowery, why she found it easy to play a mother for the first time and to perfect her character’s accent, and how her shooting schedule with Affleck mirrored the long distance relationship between their characters. She also discussed the impact of her Oscar nomination, her aspirations to direct, her experience working with different directors like Terrence Malick, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh, and the status of her Terrence Malick film and The Girl who Played with Fire. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Rooney Mara: I love small films. I saw David’s short, Pioneer, first before I even read the script, and I thought it was so odd and compelling and different than anything I had seen. I knew already that he definitely had a special voice, because the way that was written was different than anything I had heard. Then, when I read the script, the same was true for the script. It was very poetic and very musical. David has a very musical ear for his writing. It has a certain flow to it. Then I met him, and I just had a feeling about him that he was a special director. I loved the characters, I loved the world that it took place in, and I loved the relationship between Bob and Ruth.
How did you prepare mentally to play this mother who wants the best for her daughter?
Mara: David wrote such a beautiful script and such a beautiful relationship between Ruth and her daughter, so I didn’t have to prepare that much. But I spent a lot of time with the little girls beforehand so that we had some sort of relationship before. It was the first thing they had ever done, and we wanted them to be comfortable with me which happened very quickly. They got attached to me very quickly. It was so much fun working with them. They made it pretty easy.
This was the first time you’ve played a mother. Was that a strange new dynamic for you as an actress?
Mara: No, it wasn’t. My family is so gigantic. I’ve grown up around so many babies and small children. That’s what I did growing up. I was a camp counselor. I was a nanny or a babysitter my entire life, so I’ve always been around kids, and I’ve always had a very maternal quality to myself. That part came easily and was natural to me. It might surprise people but I’m very maternal.
Your accent in the film sounds very authentic. How did you work on perfecting it?
Mara: I worked with a coach a few times, but it’s such an easy accent to pick up because we’ve grown up hearing it. It’s easier to pick up as an American. I just feel like I’ve been hearing it my whole life.
This film feels somewhat like a fairy tale but the Grimm version with the dark ending rather than the happy ending. Did you ever discuss taking that approach?
Did that present challenges to you as an actor?
Mara: No. I found it super helpful that he had such a specific voice and that there was a melody to his words. I liked that about it.
Can you talk about the relationship and deep connection between Ruth and Bob and also that attraction towards Officer Wheeler?
Mara: (laughs) Well, I love her relationship with Bob. I think he said it in one of his monologues, they’re like two little kids fighting over a ball. We talked about how they met when they were 12 years old and were inseparable ever since. They have this fiery relationship where they fight and come back together, and they fight and come back together. Their relationship is childish in that way, but I love that kind of love story about people who’ve been together since they were little and people who’ve grown up together. Her attraction to Officer (Patrick) Wheeler… I never saw it as her having an attraction to him. The way I thought about it when I was doing it is that Ruth is entirely loyal to Bob and she wants to be with Bob, but at the same time, she wants to do what’s right for her daughter. At the end of day, her ideal would be to have them all be together, but she knows that’s not possible. She wishes she would want to be with someone like Patrick, but it wouldn’t be enough for her. The idea of him is a great comfort to her and she wishes that she could have that. He’s so different from Bob, and that’s really where her passion and her love is. She wishes she could be with someone like Patrick, but I don’t think it would fulfill her.
So much of what you shot with Casey was separate. What was your impression when you saw the whole thing come together?
Mara: I loved watching his stuff. All of my favorite scenes in the whole movie are stuff that I wasn’t there for. It was very fitting the way we shot the film. He went there first and shot all of his stuff, and then I came and we shot our stuff together. Then he left and I shot my stuff. He spent his whole time trying to get back to Ruth, and we really didn’t know each other at all. Bob has that fear on his way to Ruth. Is she different now? What will she be like? I think [it’s similar to] the anticipation that he had waiting for me to get there, then I got there and we shot our stuff together, then he left. Ruth spends a lot of the time nostalgic for Bob and longing for him and wanting him to come back. They positioned it perfectly for the way that we shot it.
Was there any dialogue that you were able to add to the character?
Mara: Yes, we added some things every once in a while. Ruth has a long monologue at the end and I added to that. I worked with David on that. Certainly, with the little girl, a lot of those things were improv because you can’t script what’s going to happen when you’re working with a kid like that. But most of it was in the script. You didn’t need to add much to that script.
Can you talk about working with both Ben and Casey?
Mara: Yes. They’re very different to work with. I guess every actor I’ve worked with has been different. I very much enjoyed working with both of them. They’re both fantastic actors. I’ve been lucky in the people that I’ve gotten to work with over the last few years. I don’t have anything but nice things to say about both of them.
What did you enjoy most about this film?
Mara: I enjoyed everything about the film. It was such a lovely experience making the film. I don’t think there’s one person that I didn’t like. It was small and very close. I loved everything about it. I did.
Mara: Not that many surprising things happened. Certainly, the opportunity that I was afforded after that whole experience was tremendous and that was very different for me. It was a very different experience to be able to pick and choose what you want to work on. Up until that point, I didn’t have that luxury. I just worked when I was asked to. That was very different for me.
Do you write scripts? Do you have any interest in directing or producing?
Mara: God, no. I don’t think I could write a script. I don’t think I have that kind of self assurance and will power. I mean, certainly not an original one. But, I guess, never say, “Never.” Maybe someday very, very far from now I’d like to direct, but I still have so much to learn about acting, so I don’t feel like I should jump into something new.
How does your experience working with David Lowery compare to working with David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, or someone like Terrence Malick?
Mara: Every director I’ve ever worked with has been different from the next. I don’t ever think about comparing them, because I’m just an actor. When I go into the experience of working with someone new, I always try and give myself over to the way they do things. I don’t have a set way of doing things because it’s not my place to. My job is to be able to accommodate their process, and I like that. I like working with Fincher doing fifty takes, and then I like working with Steven doing two takes. Every director is different, and I’m very happy about that. If everyone had the same process, it would be pretty boring.
Where does Terrence fall into that? Is he a fifty or a two-take kind of guy?
What do you look for in a project? And what are you working on next?
Mara: I’m not working on anything right now, just taking time off, trying to find something. I don’t have a rhyme or reason to the things that I choose. I try and go on instinct, if I can hear the character’s voice, or if it’s a story I feel like I need to tell or that I want to be a part of. I try not to do the same thing too much. I just go on feeling.
Can you talk about the status of the Terrence Malick movie you filmed?
Mara: You just want to know about the movie? I mean, I want to know about it, too. I wish I had some answers for myself. Honestly, it doesn’t even have a title yet. I don’t know when it’s coming out or even what it’s going to be about. That’s the beautiful thing about Terry. I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see it. (Laughs)
Is The Girl who Played with Fire still happening at this point?
Mara: I hope so. I don’t know, to be honest.
You haven’t seen a script?
Mara: No. But if I had, I wouldn’t tell you. (Laughs)
You and your sister, Kate, work in the same industry. What do you talk about?
Mara: She’s my sister. Of course, we talk about everything. We have the same job, so we have a lot of things that we can celebrate together or commiserate about with each other. We can relate with each other on a lot of different levels because we’re sisters and we also happen to work in the same industry.
Is your sister your best critic?
Mara: (Laughs) No. She’s a little biased. I wouldn’t judge her, and I don’t think I would trust her criticism.