'Girl' talk: Rooney Mara discusses her piercing performance

ROONEY MARA says that she didn't feel any pressure taking on the pivotal role of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which makes her one pretty cool customer.

Salander, one of the iconic fictional characters of the past decade, was very recently played in movies to near-perfection by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version of the film, and Mara, best know so far for a few minutes in Fincher's "The Social Network," has one of the year's biggest movies riding on her very slim shoulders.

No pressure at all?

"I guess there was," Mara said, laughing, Saturday at Manhattan's Crosby Street Hotel, "but I didn't really think of it like that. Certainly on paper I can understand why it would be a crazy thing to want to sign up for, but once I read the books, I really felt strongly that I had to play this girl and knew I could bring something to her. With David directing, I felt really taken care of.

"I had to go into it without hesitation," she added. "I had to forget all of that pressure and just focus on the task at hand, which was to try to bring this character to life."

That meant getting numerous piercings, bleaching her eyebrows, doing all kinds of crazy things with her hair, adding some muscle to her small frame, getting very naked for three very different sex scenes (one a brutal rape), learning to ride a motorcycle and finding a voice.

That was a hard thing to figure out, she said, "because if you go to Stockholm, you'll see that no two people have the same accent. There isn't a Swedish accent in English. Some people sound British. Some people sound American. Some people have a really thick accent, sort of like a Southern accent. It's so varied. The people from the north sound different than the people from the south, so we really had to pick and choose what we wanted Lisbeth's voice to sound like. That took a lot of work. I worked with someone five days a week on that.

"We all have to sound like we're in the same movie," she added, "but at the same time it's very faithful to Sweden that all of us sort of have our own sound. [Daniel Craig's] character uses a British accent, but being an extremely well-educated reporter, that probably is what he would sound like. There were quite a few people we met who sounded like that. My character, being less educated, would probably have a thicker accent than most of the people in the movie."

Although the movie visually dramatizes the sexual violence against women in the book, Mara said she's been surprised how well people have tolerated it - especially people in her own family. (For you Eagles fans, Mara's great-grandfather Tim Mara founded the New York Giants, and her great-grandfather on her mother's side, Art Rooney, founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both families are still team owners. But don't be haters.)

"We had a screening for my whole family [older sister Kate is also an actress], and I was terrified," she said. "But they were all fine . . . With my grandparents I was like, 'I don't think you guys should go, I don't think you should watch it,' and they were really scared to see it. But then they came out and they loved it. And I was just like, 'Really? Are you sure it wasn't upsetting for you?'

" . . . My mom has seen it three times."

"Certainly I've never been more exposed or vulnerable than I was in this film," Mara added, "but I've definitely felt more expoited in past films. Here, I never once felt exploited or uncomfortable. I put 100 percent trust in David, and everyone was really protective of me, and it always felt very safe and comfortable."

Growing up a child of means, Mara had few friends or role models to draw upon for Salander, but as she rightly pointed out, "I don't think anyone's ever had any interaction with a character like this. I don't know that she exists.

"I certainly had a very nice childhood, and the place that I grew up definitely has the ability to be a very sheltered place, but lucky for me that's not how I was raised," she said. "I wasn't raised in a sheltered world. I left high school early and went to a school where we traveled throughout South America for four months - Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia - so I feel like I was exposed to all different types of people from a very early age."

Her worldliness and acknowledgement of her good fortune led her to start the charity Faces of Kabera, which recently merged with a similar charity, Uweza.

"We don't have these crazy, big goals in mind," she said. "It's very small, very grass-roots. We have a community center in Kabera, Kenya, that we run all of our programs out of - soccer league, after-school tutoring - and we just started a journalism program. I think it's a really great way for the children to be able to express themselves, and it's a great tool to have, something for them to focus on and keep them out of trouble. We have a lot of programs like that. They're really small things, but it's little things that make big differences in these kids' lives."

And not letting all the Hollywood glamour hinder her from staying grounded?

"I don't have to try," she said. "People have really short memories in this business, and you can't really let anything get to your head. Every job is sort of like your first job. You sort of have to re-prove yourself every time."

Mara said she's signed on for the two "Girl" sequels, but level-headed soul that she is, she said before they're a go, "We have to wait until we see how the audience responds."

When told that shouldn't be a problem, she smiled and said, "Hopefully we'll do them back-to-back."