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By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY

NEW YORK - For Rooney Mara, playing one of modern literature's most indelible, unorthodox female creations has meant, to some extent, overcoming her inner Lisbeth Salander.

The breakout star of the much-anticipated film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is still mastering the art of garrulousness. As with Salander, none of it comes naturally, or seamlessly, to her.

"I don't enjoy talking about myself. I'm a quiet person. I like to observe much more than I like to be observed. It's definitely exhausting and bizarre to have to talk about yourself all the time," says Mara. "It's a weird part of the job."

But one, thanks to the attention being heaped on the film, she can't avoid. Mara plays solitary, skittish hacker Salander in David Fincher's film, based on the first of the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. Swedish journalist Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack, and his best sellers were published posthumously; the three books already were turned into Swedish films, which were released in the USA.

Both in the books and in Fincher's dark thriller, Salander hides a rapacious intelligence, coupled with ferocious loyalty, under a cloak of piercings, tattoos and tatty clothes. In the film, opening Tuesday, she and disgraced investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) search for a missing girl and unearth a serial killer.

During a joint interview in Manhattan, Mara and Craig are a study in contrasts. Mara, 26, is diffident and quiet, almost curled into herself at one end of a sofa. Craig, 43, outspoken and assertive, radiates confidence and decisiveness. On-screen, says Fincher, the two just fit together.

"Blomkvist is very vulnerable. Salander is very vulnerable and trying not to be - even in real life," says Fincher. "They're similar actors, in a way. They're very feline and thoughtful. They were comfortable with one another."

Director casts 'a real actor'
Fincher cast Craig first and built the rest of the film about him. He likens his vision of Blomkvist to a rugged heartthrob like Robert Mitchum, with more than a pinch of misplaced bravado.

"He shouldn't be aware of his attractiveness. He should be oblivious to it," says Fincher of Blomkvist. "I don't want to say that he preens. But I needed him to be someone who can rebound from ridiculousness. Daniel is a real actor. He's not an actor who's transitioning easily into movie stardom. He's fighting that every step of the way, and I love that about him."

As Larsson buffs know, Fincher scoured Hollywood to find his Salander, opting to sidestep A-listers in favor of a relative unknown who could hopefully inhabit the very coveted role. He had worked with Mara before, on last year's The Social Network, yet he needed her to be the opposite of the perky, preppy and very verbal college student who dumped Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg in that film.

"Lisbeth had to be furtive and untrusting and scarred - the antithesis of what we needed from her (in Network)," says Fincher.

Mara and Craig knew each other only in passing before heading to Sweden and Los Angeles for the nearly year-long shoot. How did they develop their on-screen relationship, which is the foundation of the books? With his typical brevity, Craig sums up that it's just part of the job.

"There's no trick to it. You get on with it and do it. Rooney is who she is, so she came there to do the work and make it happen. You realize quite quickly you're there with a bunch of people who are there to make the best of it. We didn't specifically work on our relationship. It just worked," says Craig.

Says Mara: "We rehearsed a lot. We went through the script over and over again and talked through it. It was all on the page. We had three books' worth of information. It was all there for us, pretty much."

She didn't allow herself to be daunted when embodying such a memorable and wholly original woman. It was reported that just about every major actress in Hollywood wanted the part. "Yeah, of course, there's that kind of pressure. But I couldn't go into it thinking about that. She felt very real to me. I tried not to think about that too much," she says.

Interjects Craig sarcastically: "So many scenes were cut. All the comedy you did. The slapstick."

For both actors, the roles mandated physical transformations. Craig, buff and taut as 007 agent James Bond, stopped working out and ate what he wanted to mimic Blomkvist's regular-guy physique.

"There's other things I did to prepare, but that's the one everyone likes to talk about. That's the nicest thing I got to do," he says with a smile.

Mara had the more dramatic regimen, going from a fresh-faced brunette to the ultimate street-urchin misfit - courtesy of razors for her hair and bleach for her brows. It didn't faze her. OK, maybe just a little.

"It was really easy. One afternoon in this hotel, they cut and dyed my hair and shaved parts of it and dyed the eyebrows. We went and got pierced," says Mara, referring to her nipple piercing, which is still in place. "That part of it was easy. I had to learn to ride the motorcycle and work out non-stop. The dialect and computer training. There's all that stuff."

The shoot was long and very, very cold. Not that you'll catch Craig complaining. "The challenges are really banal. The challenges are: We've been working all night, and it's freezing, and I don't have time to go get enough sleep. It's what happens to everyone when they're working hard," he says. "I kind of feel like I'm whining, someone who's moaning because he's working hard. This is a dream job. The challenge is getting it right."

Relating to the characters
It helped that both characters resonated with Craig and Mara. He remembers reading the first book and thinking it would make a killer movie. And when playing Blomkvist, who starts off being found guilty of libel, Craig approached him as the anti-Bond, a guy who gets shot at and runs away and who later wanders right into a killer's trap.

"You always bring a bit of yourself. That's how you find your way in. I just wanted him to sit as comfortably with me. He's an idealist. I'd like to think I am an idealist sometimes," says Craig. "But he's an idealist with a big ego who (messes) up. I wanted him to be as keen and as realistic and have a strong sense of what is morally right. I love his honesty. He loves women. That's one of the things I'm quite happy to relate to."

On the surface, at least, Mara has nothing in common with Salander, an abused ward of the state who is mostly terrified of people. Mara was raised in tony Bedford, N.Y., attended New York University, and is the great-granddaughter of both Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and New York Giants founder Tim Mara. Her older sister, Kate, is an actress as well. Still, she says Salander got under her skin.

"When I read the books, I felt very much in her head, like I understood her. I related to her on a lot of levels, in a bizarre way. We couldn't have had a more different upbringing. But I think we have a lot of similarities at the core of us," says Mara. "I can be quite slow to warm and slow to trust people, and certainly more a loner like she is. We both like to investigate something and understand it fully before we're ready to sort of reveal ourselves to the world. I definitely have that to a fault. I tend to overthink things."

Fincher describes her as "wise and childlike in odd combinations. She takes a while to read the room. When you meet a cat for the first time, it won't just jump on your lap. Rooney is very much that. She doesn't give herself over to situations easily. She's very thoughtful."

As for Craig, he can be famously prickly in interviews, particularly if pressed about his wife, Rachel Weisz. They married over the summer, without anyone the wiser, and avoid discussing each other with reporters. Has playing a reporter given Craig more appreciation for the Fourth Estate?

"I've never disliked the media. Never. That's a total misconception. What I dislike isn't journalism. It has nothing to do with journalism. Journalism is an incredibly vital part of a free and democratic society. I have no problem with it," he says.

In person, Craig has an acerbic, edgy sense of humor. Mara is warier. The most notably ridiculous question they've been asked while promoting the film? That's a no-brainer.

Craig: "How many tattoos have you got?"

Mara: "Someone asked me if I liked a smoky eye."

Craig: "I do. I love a smoky eye."

For both actors, working together on a project of this magnitude is an experience they treasure. So much so that they'll happily team up again, for something far less highbrow than a full-length Fincher film.

"When it's right, it's right. I would do a tampon commercial with David," says Mara.

Craig laughs, then nods his assent. "So would I. In fact, we talked about doing one. We're doing a tampon commercial."

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