Fifty Shades of Rooney

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Byline: Marlow Stern

In Hollywood--land of a million pretty young things--Rooney Mara has directors lining up to capture her icy demeanor and her inner fire.

I'm interested in the duality of people," says Rooney Mara, of her predilection for caliginous characters. "I have a lot of darkness and frenetic energy inside myself, so it's easier for me to portray people with shades of gray."

After two and a half months of grueling auditions, which included simulating the film's lurid rape sequence, Mara beat out the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence for the role of Lisbeth Salander--an icy bisexual hacker in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A Best Actress Oscar nomination soon followed, catapulting her to the rarefied air of Hollywood's most wanted.

"We asked her to do some pretty horrendous s--t, and I never felt her shy away from anything," says her Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher. "If there's one thing Lisbeth had to have, it's what Rooney has in spades: she's singular."

The singular 27-year-old actress has four disparate film projects scheduled to hit theaters this year, including a Terrence Malick love story opposite Ryan Gosling, the gritty '70s-era Western Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Spike Jonze's sci-fi flick Her alongside Joaquin Phoenix, and Side Effects, a pharma-thriller helmed by Steven Soderbergh.

Side Effects, in theaters Feb. 8, is the opening salvo. Mara assumes the role of Emily Taylor, devoted wife to a financial hotshot busted for insider trading, played by Channing Tatum. When his four-year prison stint is up, he's released to her and harbors the delusion that they will soon rejoin the ranks of the 1 percent. Emily then spirals into a deep depression, apparently triggered by a prescription from her shady doctor (Jude Law) for a cutting-edge antidepressant, Ablixa. Mara's feral performance sends the viewer on a wildly unpredictable series of twists and turns, made credible by the actress's fierce dedication to the role.

"It's hard to really quantify Rooney," says Tatum. "She has such a fire in her and you don't think she does, because she's so unassuming. So when she snaps, you're just like, 'How the f--k did that come out of this little, ethereal being with the porcelain skin?' And when she laughs it's completely shocking, too. It's part of her mystique."

Adds Law, "There isn't a desperate bone in her body; she's very cool. And it's a rarity for someone of her age to be so fearless as a performer. She's capable of going to the dark places, which is bold."

In order to prepare for the character of Emily, Mara met with psychologists and those suffering from depression. According to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, he sent Mara a series of YouTube video diaries of people diagnosed with depression and made her a mix of sad music (at her request). Mara became obsessed with the videos as well as the mix, her favorite songs being "Black Balloon" by the Kills and Paul Westerberg's "Bookmark."

Asked if she's ever dealt with depression herself, Mara takes a long pause. "Yeah, I was kind of a troubled teenager," she says. "I think everyone has an experience with depression, anxiety, or sadness because growing up is so traumatizing."

Soderbergh took a shine to Mara after his pal Fincher showed him an early cut of The Social Network. Mara plays Erica Albright, a brainy, girl-next-door type who trades verbal barbs with eventual Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, in the film's riveting opening sequence.

"We had two mandates: she had to be somebody who could go toe-to-toe with Jesse, because he's so verbal and quicksilver, and she also had to be the one that got away, so she needed to be special, really bright, and pretty," says Fincher, before adding with a slight chuckle, "you can fake a lot of things in movies, but that's not one of them."

Several months later, Soderbergh was renting an office in Fincher's building while the latter was in the throes of searching for his Dragon Tattoo leading lady. …