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Rooney Mara comes into her own

Rooney Mara attends the Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit honoring Cate Blanchett at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in New York.
Rooney Mara attends the Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit honoring Cate Blanchett at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in New York. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Although she had only a few minutes of screen time, Rooney Mara made a deep impression as the young woman who dumps Mark Zuckerberg at the start of David Fincher’s The Social Network, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the creation of Facebook.

Mara had already worked extensively in television and films, but her performance in The Social Network was the first one you remembered. Next came her breakout moment — her Oscar-nominated portrayal of the emotionally damaged Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Since then, Mara has alternated between high-profile studio films (she played Tiger Lily in the fantasy Pan and a scheming psychopath in Side Effects) and smaller, independent pictures (including the lyrical, Terrence Malick-flavored Ain’t Them Bodies Saints).

Her latest film, Carol, which opens Friday, falls somewhere in between. Director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt isn’t a big-budget affair, but it has the quality and pedigree of the kind of polished, high-tone adult dramas that Hollywood rarely bothers to make anymore.

Mara plays Therese, a retail store clerk living in 1950s New York who is smitten the moment she lays eyes on an older, glamorous woman (Cate Blanchett). Mara, who is 30, says she read Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay so long ago that “I honestly can’t remember what my first impression was.”

But Mara does recall that she didn’t have to think too long about whether or not to take the role.

“I wasn’t thinking specifically about my character,” she says. “I was just excited by the idea of working with Todd and Cate, and the story was so beautiful — unlike anything I had read before. I also really liked the transition Therese goes through. She’s unlike anything I had done before, and I thought that would be something great to play with.”

Although Blanchett’s character gets the title billing, the movie is really Therese’s story — the journey of a young woman who thought she had started to get a handle on her life, only to be forced to question everything she knows after experiencing the thrill of true love.

Carol is expected to rack up several nominations when Academy voters announce their choices for the 2016 Oscars in January — for acting, of course, but also cinematography, costuming and art direction. A big part of the film’s appeal is how Haynes manages to transport the viewer back in time without relying on the usual tricks of vintage pop songs on the soundtrack and slang from the era.

Even Mara admits she was surprised the first time she saw the finished product.

“I’m a huge fan of all of Todd’s movies, so I always knew this would make a beautiful film,” she says. “But I had no idea exactly just how beautiful it would look and how well he would capture the feeling of falling in love. Todd is very collaborative and open. He’s also extremely prepared and does a ton of research. He creates this space where you can try anything without worrying about looking foolish or being embarrassed. And working with Cate was a dream come true. It was a little intimidating before I got to set. But once we started, I couldn’t have been more excited.”

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